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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Considerations in the identification of functional RNA structural elements in genomic alignments

Tomas Babak12, Benjamin J Blencowe12 and Timothy R Hughes12*

Author Affiliations

1 Banting and Best Department of Medical Research, Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, 160 College St, Toronto, ON M5S 3E1 Canada

2 Department of Medical Genetics and Microbiology, 10 King's College Circle, Toronto, ON M1R 4F9 Canada

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BMC Bioinformatics 2007, 8:33  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-8-33

Published: 30 January 2007



Accurate identification of novel, functional noncoding (nc) RNA features in genome sequence has proven more difficult than for exons. Current algorithms identify and score potential RNA secondary structures on the basis of thermodynamic stability, conservation, and/or covariance in sequence alignments. Neither the algorithms nor the information gained from the individual inputs have been independently assessed. Furthermore, due to issues in modelling background signal, it has been difficult to gauge the precision of these algorithms on a genomic scale, in which even a seemingly small false-positive rate can result in a vast excess of false discoveries.


We developed a shuffling algorithm,, that simultaneously preserves dinucleotide frequency, gaps, and local conservation in pairwise sequence alignments. We used to assess precision and recall of six ncRNA search tools (MSARI, QRNA, ddbRNA, RNAz, Evofold, and several variants of simple thermodynamic stability on a test set of 3046 alignments of known ncRNAs. Relative to mononucleotide shuffling, preservation of dinucleotide content in shuffling the alignments resulted in a drastic increase in estimated false-positive detection rates for ncRNA elements, precluding evaluation of higher order alignments, which cannot not be adequately shuffled maintaining both dinucleotides and alignment structure. On pairwise alignments, none of the covariance-based tools performed markedly better than thermodynamic scoring alone. Although the high false-positive rates call into question the veracity of any individual predicted secondary structural element in our analysis, we nevertheless identified intriguing global trends in human genome alignments. The distribution of ncRNA prediction scores in 75-base windows overlapping UTRs, introns, and intergenic regions analyzed using both thermodynamic stability and EvoFold (which has no thermodynamic component) was significantly higher for real than shuffled sequence, while the distribution for coding sequences was lower than that of corresponding shuffles.


Accurate prediction of novel RNA structural elements in genome sequence remains a difficult problem, and development of an appropriate negative-control strategy for multiple alignments is an important practical challenge. Nonetheless, the general trends we observed for the distributions of predicted ncRNAs across genomic features are biologically meaningful, supporting the presence of secondary structural elements in many 3' UTRs, and providing evidence for evolutionary selection against secondary structures in coding regions.